A Guest Pandora’s Box: Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder

Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth of our AAR blog columns. The basic idea is that we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We’re still Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer.

Fair (or, honestly, slightly unfair) warning: we swapped around the order for today. We were supposed to be looking at Ginn Hale’s Lord of the White Hell, but we moved it to next month, so we could be joined by reviewing superstar, Willaful. Today we’re going to be looking at Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder instead.

Set during a local election, Sweet Disorder is essential small-town set Regency Romance, about Phoebe Sparks — a widow in possession of a vote only her husband could cast — and Nick Dymond, the son of a prominent Whig, who is dispatched to secure said vote by finding her a suitable husband.

AJH: I should probably warn you, I’m going to be useless for this. I have literally nothing to say about this book that isn’t ‘omg I loved that’.

Elisabeth: Well, this is going to be a short review then since I felt much the same way. So…SQUEE. See you next month?

AJH: Maybe can just replace ourselves with a set of wildly joyous reaction gifs?

Elisabeth: Honestly, I think that’s a fabulous idea. There’s only so many ways to say THIS BOOK WAS AWESOME, after all.

AJH: It was, however, so awesome that I’m kind of desperate to talk (gush/squee/exclaim) about it. I mean, I read a lot of historicals and it was such a breath of fresh air, to be away from the usual sorts of settings and situations. And, don’t get me wrong, I love me some slutty Duke and some Almack waltzing scandal, but I really appreciated the political focus, the small town environment, and the fact that the book is largely about middle class people with what felt to me like very human, recognisable problems. Problems like how to get on with your life when you’re a widow. What to do when your teenage sister gets pregnant. How to keep your sweet shop running when you don’t have much money. And so on.

Elisabeth: I’ve been reading historical romances for so long that a lot of them have started to blur together. Not that I don’t also love the ballrooms of Mayfair, but Sweet Disorder was powerfully original. And also so full of heart. Not just in the romance between the hero and the heroine, but in the community’s struggles, family issues and needing to find a way to get along in the world with all the scars of the past.

AJH: Yes, heart is exactly right. I loved the way pretty much every single character you meet is developed and nuanced and written with such understanding and compassion. Even the people who behave less than well. It’s essentially an arranged marriage plot and it could have been so easy to make Phoebe’s alternative choices unpleasant in some way, but they’re both decent men, who just happen to be wildly unsuitable for her. Moon because he’s kind of intimidated by her and the Tory guy, Mr Fairclough, who is just a little bit too patriarchal, although he’s compelling to her in other ways.

Elisabeth: It’s funny actually. I liked Mr. Moon much, much better as a hero than Nick, but that’s, well, for me. For Phoebe, he’s kind of a disaster. He doesn’t read (she’s a writer) and she doesn’t like sweets (he’s a baker), but I loved his down-to-earth wisdom and, of course, his bakery. I was very excited when Rose Lerner mentioned on Twitter recently that he’s going to get his own novella. But Nick had his good points.

AJH: Moon would make a wonderful (and unusual) hero. I can’t wait to see what she does with him. Personally speaking, Fairclough is more my type — tough but kind Tory mill owner from Th’ North. Oh my. And how completely hilarious is it that we’re debating the romantic possibilities of the guys the heroine didn’t want?

Elisabeth: I think it just speaks to your point about how well developed even secondary characters are in this book. There aren’t really any caricatures, which seems especially rare for a Regency.

AJH: Yes, and there isn’t really a villain in the capital-V sense either, which is something I respond well to. I mean, obviously romantic suspenses require a capital-V villain, but there aren’t usually villains in real life — so when there’s somebody completely cackling in a more down to earth setting, it tends to jar me out of the story.

Elisabeth: The one place I might have wanted a bit more nuance was in the portrayal of the hero and heroine’s mothers.

AJH: I was thinking about that too. I actually really liked what Lerner did with Nick’s mother. She’s basically an amazing human being, but a terrible mother — and I found that portrayal kind of fascinating, because she’s someone I very much admired but also disliked intensely. And I thought it was kind of bold and interesting to give a female character that much narrative freedom to be, well, a dick in ways that are stereotypically masculine. I mean, Regencies are full of absent, ambitious, ruthless fathers. And here we have an absent, ambitious, ruthless mother.

Elisabeth: That’s a good point. I was so caught up in these characters — Nick and Phoebe — that I was really just pained for both of them. I suppose I wanted them to have had better parents. But that’s not the same thing as nuance. I guess it’s really Phoebe’s mother whose motivations weren’t as clear to me. Her concern for propriety is what any mother would feel, I suppose, but the way she reacts to her daughter’s pregnancy… I was just glad that she finally sort of came around or I was going to be uncomfortable with that level of evilness.

AJH: Also ‘bad mother’ is just one of those difficult literary devices because it’s basically synonymous with ‘bad woman’ or ‘bad human.’ Whereas, as you say, mothering instincts are not an integral part of being a woman, or even a good woman. For me, I just felt Mrs Knight (especially compared to Nick’s mother) didn’t anything else for me to really understand about her. She just seemed rubbish across the board, but then she doesn’t have Lady Dymond’s social freedom because she’s lower class and obviously if you’re an Earl’s wife you can more easily get away with ignoring your kids and having a life. So now I’ve just talked myself round in a massive circle of “I’m troubled by this .. oh no, wait, I’m not.” But I just love books that let you have discussions like this.

Elisabeth: Yes, no matter how much we talk, I feel like we’re barely going to scratch the surface of what Sweet Disorder has to offer. I mean, we haven’t even really talked about the romance yet. And it’s…beautiful.

AJH: God, it is. I was genuinely mesmerised by it. It’s got a slow build to it, so it feels like a genuine connection has been forged and it felt like there were genuine obstacles for them to overcome. So, even though I knew on a meta level it was a genre convention, the happy ending didn’t feel inevitable. It felt fragile throughout and then hard-earned.

Elisabeth: And there’s a coherent theme that comes out of their interactions, which we don’t always get in romance. They spend quite a lot of time working side-by-side together on the paper, and then that one super hot scene where they’re trading saying what they want back and forth, and then late in the book Nick says something like: “Love isn’t selfless, but it isn’t selfish either. It’s two people being equally important.” And yet, Lerner managed to present such a modern, feminist message in a way that didn’t feel at all anachronistic, just like…the ways things should be.

AJH: Yes, I loved that. Again, I feel (rightly) like a dickhead talking about feminism in romance because, cough, I do not get to do that – but it’s fantastic, the way the book centralised so many female characters and allowed them freedom and agency in a way that, as you say, doesn’t feel like Gender Studies 101 or like some kind of fantastical alt-history where feminism wasn’t needed because everything was totes fiiiiine. I really enjoy sex-positive heroines in romance (God, that sounds sleazy … but I have only so much patience for women being gently introduced to bedroom pleasures by experienced, uber-skillful dudes) and I felt Phoebe’s sexual desires and sexual confidence was handled really well. It’s just wonderful to read about and yet didn’t come across as unrealistic or anachronistic. No virgin widows here.

Elisabeth: I completely agree. On the one hand, I don’t love being reminded of how very many rights women didn’t have in the past. On the other, this entire story couldn’t happen any other way. Phoebe is making a political marriage because she can’t cast a vote herself. So I love that the reality is tempered by this vibrant relationship of equals that develops between her and Nick as a foil to that. It’s just the perfect balance.

AJH: *insert joy gif here* Actually, this is a really minor point, but can I just also say how much I loved that Phoebe was fat but that it wasn’t the whole point of the story? Every book I’ve read about non-normatively sized heroines as been ABOUT them being non-normatively sized.

Elisabeth: And the same could be said of the limp Nick acquired while serving in the war. They make adaptations for him, but it doesn’t become who he is.

AJH: Yes, exactly. I like the way these experiences feed into the story, but never become definitional. And speaking of Nick, I really liked him too. I actually identified with him a lot, which probably sounds odd, but the thing about him finding it difficult to articulate wanting things … I was so there. Male characters as people (rather than objects of desire) often aren’t the focus of romances and that’s absolutely fine. I’m not trying to say the genre about/for women pay more attention to men. But you get a different kind of romance when both characters are drawn with the same degree of depth and complexity and empathy.

Elisabeth: I do tend to prefer romances where both characters are fully articulated. I enjoy them less when they deliberately speak to a recognizable type — feisty heroine, alpha hero, etc. I loved that there wasn’t any shorthand here. Nick was just Nick and Phoebe was just Phoebe. They’re unlike anyone else — almost like real human beings.

AJH: Yes, and I adored them both. We spoke a bit earlier about the integration of feminist themes — I was also really struck by the exploration of masculinity that comes out of Nick’s experiences in the war. About how he’d felt he was basically failing at manhood by experiencing pain and loss and fear. Again, it just speaks to the broad compassion of this book and I was really moved by it.

Elisabeth: There’s just so much to love in this book, I feel like I could rave about it all day. Did you have any final thoughts?

AJH: Just to reiterate my love. I completely ate this book. It made me so happy in all the ways. I think everyone in the world should read it and be happy too.

Elisabeth: Speaking of eating… I would remiss if I didn’t at least mention that the food in this book is killer. I feel like I have to say it because I basically blog about food in romance in my “real life” and it’s rare that I come across one that uses food to such effect. So much of how Phoebe and Nick are characterised is done through food. It was my favorite part of the whole book.


We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder.

And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale.

Elisabeth and Alexis

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